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Neville the real deal in false world

L IKE timid politicians calling to the door or bank officials facing the public, footballers are pretty high up the list when it comes to picking an easy target.

They're ridiculously overpaid for simply kicking a ball around; have no loyalty to the clubs that nurtured their talent; are thoroughly detached from the world around them and are only concerned with looking out for No 1. Among other things.

So when a player comes along who bucks that trend, who is more concerned with being associated with medals than models, drives a Toyota Prius like a normal person and ekes every last drop out of his talent, he should be praised, right? Well, maybe, unless his name is Gary Neville.

Unlike Newcastle and Liverpool, who were forced to hastily rearrange the merchandising in the club shop when Andy Carroll and Fernando Torres left last week, the staff at the Manchester United Superstore were unlikely to have been too inconvenienced by Neville's decision to call it quits.

'The Story of Gary Neville' was never much of a bestseller and even the tributes that were paid to him on television last week needed padding with him blocking shots or throwing the ball in, because showing all seven of the goals he scored for Manchester United lasted all of 15 seconds.

Then there's the YouTube clips which either show him being made to look like a fool by Romario in the World Club Championship; like a child by refusing to shake hands with Manchester City goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel in the tunnel; or like a hatchet-man for his method of dealing with Jose Antonio Reyes when Arsenal visited Old Trafford looking to make it 50 games unbeaten.

And yet, in an era when many players care far more about the number in their bank account than their number in the team, there's something admirable about his decision to stop playing because he could no longer play for Manchester United.

Roy Keane's departure from Old Trafford was far less amicable, but there must be a part of him now that wishes he'd taken the Neville route and not signed for another club, forgoing the ubiquitous Irish "dream" of playing for Celtic. Like Muhammad Ali when he fought Leon Spinks, it was sad to watch Keane trudging around the SPL with Celtic as younger, fitter players scurried past, making him look every one of his 30-odd years. Had Keane stayed at Parkhead for another season, it would have gone down the route of Ali against Larry Holmes or Trevor Berbick.

Unlike Keane, however, Neville's decline has been obvious for a couple of years but had he wanted to keep a five-figure weekly salary, his agent could easily have arranged an 18-month deal in the transfer window which would have added a couple of million to his coffers.

This, after all, was a window in which Liverpool paid £35m for a player who failed to score in the Championship last year against the likes of Scunthorpe, Barnsley and Plymouth and, having almost trebled his salary, had the gall to claim that Newcastle forced him to leave.

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Then there was Fernando Torres' chilling press conference which, with a pair of braces on, could have come from the mouth of Gordon Gekko. Torres' revelation that he was never a Liverpool fan or had no great love for any badge wasn't exactly shocking but the coldness of the delivery made for a fine insight into the reality of the professional game.

It's unrealistic to expect Neville tributes to flow from Manchester City or Liverpool supporters, but even those in the red half of Manchester seemed to shrug at the announcement, despite the defender's eight Premier Leagues, three FA Cups, Champions League and over 600 games for the club.

Medals aren't always a decisive way of measuring a player's ability (Igor Biscan has a Champions League medal, Cesc Fabregas doesn't) but rarely has the loss of such a successful player been met with such apathy.

There were scoffs at Alex Ferguson's description of Neville as "the best full-back of his generation" which does sound a little far-fetched until the alternatives, particularly on the right side, are discussed. From the Premier League, Dennis Irwin is probably closest but few others make a convincing argument to usurp Neville. Rafael was two when Neville made his debut for United but, like John O'Shea and Wes Brown before him, hasn't fully convinced everyone that he is ready to step into Neville's spot and, as United know from Schmeichel, Keane, Giggs and Scholes, stalwarts aren't too easy to replace. The Brazilian has more technical ability, pace and skill than Neville had even at his best, yet that's probably the biggest reason of all why Neville deserves to be celebrated -- because he made the absolute maximum out of his talent.

There are many players who went to England's professional clubs as sure things only to be chewed up and spat out once the cold reality dawned. Some of those shrug and barely discuss that time, but there are many others who bang on about how great they once were when their age and waistline number was a lot smaller.

They were better than Gary Neville, they'll say to anyone who will listen. They could have been a contender. Neville never looked like a contender and arguably wasn't even the most talented sportsperson in his family, but 85 international caps and 16 major trophies with the most successful club of the last two decades speak louder than any voice from a barstool.

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